By Fr. Niphot Thianvihan
Based on the social teachings of the Church and dialogue of life with indigenous peoples, we have discovered that“people are not empty.” True religion is already present in the villagers and not merely in us. From our reflection process, we discovered that we took ourselves as the principal actor in judging whether the indigenous peoples had or did not have religion. We believed that we were religious and we had an obligation to present theology and communicate religion to others. The development and change of our concepts and approach can be divided into three main periods.
In the beginning of our work, there were two groups of understanding. The first group of people had a concept of adjusting and applying religion in daily life. The problem of this understanding is that even if we started from the religious dimension but we had not seriously and deeply reflected on “what actual life of the grassroots people really is.” Their life in our eyes was what we imagined. The second group had an understanding that we should start implement concrete activities with indigenous people. Our entry point was through concrete activities concerning their life reality, which were inevitably economic ones. When we started to implement economic activities, they were not related to religion at all. Later, we analysed our experience and came to a conclusion it was our frame of thought that made us try to “apply” religion into life. When there were problems in real life, we thought it was necessary to implement activities to address those problems.
In the second period, we began to recognise that “the life of the villagers itself is the theology.” It took us several years to come to conclusion that it is not necessary to “apply” religion into human life. This initiated a new point of departure. It began a period in which we ourselves started to change fundamentally. These changes involved all aspects of our involvement, i.e. our conceptual understanding of development work, and even our concrete approach and methodology in supporting the activities of the indigenous peoples.
We gained this understanding when we directly worked with indigenous leaders. When we implemented activities with the villagers, we entered into a mutual learning process. First, we analysed problems together with indigenous leaders and we found that they had their own concerns viewed from their own Karen ethnic perspectives. In this analysis we found that their concern was their children, their identity and their language and cultures, such as tribal dresses and education. Their major concern was not just their economic convictions.
Informed by this view we came to ask ourselves and we raised the 16 questions in searching for “What is the authentic cultural values of the tribal people?” We began to see what is at the heart of the religio-cultural values of the villagers. We searched and found that they have their own worldview based essentially on religio-cultural values. All their expressions are based on this worldview. Their worldview encompasses their own lives, the lives of others, the present world, the world to come and God. In this very learning process with the villagers we come to ask ourselves how much more there may be to discover in this rich worldview. We even ask ourselves how much has already been lost to posterity because of our changing times. It took us 4-5 years (since 1975) to be aware of this process and its fragility. And, it becomes our paradigm shift in working with the indigenous peoples.
In the third period, we had seen a close relationship and interdependence between religion and culture in the life of the people. However, when we implemented our activities we still separated the religious-cultural dimensions from the project themselves. This was a period of searching and attempting to integrate all the aspects of life, values and meaning in our shared activities and projects.